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When the announcement finally dropped that FloSports would become the new provider for ECHL.tv, the league’s streaming service that covers every single regular season and Kelly Cup playoff game, there was plenty of buzz generated among the players, coaches, and staffers in the “E” as well as the fanbase of every team.
There was also one common question.
When will the games actually start so we can watch them?
Following successful discussions with the PHPA, ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin was finally able to provide that answer this past week, revealing a unique split-season schedule in which 13 teams will open up on December 11, while the remaining 12 clubs are set to begin their year on January 14.
“We’d been discussing this since April or May, and the hope back then was we’d be getting back in October and getting ready for a normal hockey season. Clearly, that’s not the case,” Crelin told FloHockey.
“It’s been constant phone calls and communication since then to piece this all together. It’s an extremely exciting announcement, but it’s just the beginning, we still have a lot to do to make this a reality. We know that things continue to change, sometimes daily, and we’ll need to adjust and be nimble. It’s just part of doing business in 2020.”
Some of the most important business the league does, of course, is in relation to their affiliations to the American Hockey League — for whom they serve as the direct pipeline for call-ups — and the National Hockey League, which has now seen 678 former ECHL alumni reach the game’s highest level.
Those relationships will, Crelin says, largely remain the same.
“Things may be slightly tweaked, but the NHL has done a great job to get all of hockey together — the AHL, ECHL, NCAA, junior leagues and really all of hockey in America — so we can update each other frequently,” he said. “We each have our own set of challenges, but fortunately for the ECHL, we were able to create this split-season format. That may not work for every league, but the relationship remains the same.”
To be fair, there may be challenges with it to work for the ECHL given that the Brampton Beast and defending champion Newfoundland Growlers both play in Canada, and border restrictions have yet to be lifted. Both teams are, as a result, a part of the second group of teams set to get started in January, but Crelin knows that some adjustments may need to be made going forward if it gets to that point.
“I don’t have any concerns in the long-term, but in the short-term, certainly, it’s something that all of sports are facing,” he said. “You saw baseball have to deal with it with the Blue Jays, and the other leagues are looking at it as well. We’d given all teams the opportunity to join on at the later (January start) date, but we just need to play it by ear and see what the factors are and make a determination.”
As contingency plans go, Crelin says there are “a couple of different options” if restrictions remain as they are once the calendar page mercifully turns to 2021.
“One could be that, unfortunately, they wouldn’t be able to play,” Crelin said of his Canadian franchises. “But another would be that we’re able to get them into a division and maybe even play on the road exclusively, or have them housed in the U.S. Those are all options that have been considered, and even some crazier things beyond that. Ultimately, we’d have to make the decision based on the factors at that time, but we’re just going to let things play over the course of these next few weeks.”
Entering just his third season as the ECHL’s commissioner, surely a resolution sooner rather than later would be best, if for no other reason than to relieve at least some of the stress that’s been weighing on him as he tries to successfully steer the league out of an unprecedented situation.
“It’s exhausting,” Crelin said. “But, I’m just trying to get all of the information, get all of the viewpoints, get all of the facts . . . and just work towards solutions. It’s not been easy. We’ve made this announcement, and we’re all excited for it, but it’s still just the beginning. So now it’s on us to put on a season in this truncated timeframe. It’s been a challenge, no question. I don’t think the challenge is over . . . I hope this is something the ECHL and the world never have to face again, but we have to find a way to come out of this, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Perhaps for those on the outside looking in, the pandemic could be viewed as having the potential to wipe the ECHL out altogether. The possibility of not having a 2020-21 season was, Crelin says, “on the table,” but the long-term stability of the league remains just fine despite some of the unique challenges that remain in play given the ECHL’s choice to move forward and play.
“Unfortunately, this was from very early on, a jurisdictional issue,” he said. “We’re in 19 states and two Canadian provinces, and everyone’s tried to treat it a bit differently. We keep trying to set up options so that the league can move forward, but to give teams the viability to make a decision based on their jurisdiction, which may be out of their hands . . . you never want to see a season go dark for the entire league. We may have teams that have to make that election through no fault of their own, but if we had the opportunity to put on a season as a league, we wanted to at least give that opportunity.”
Crelin pointed to what happened with the shutdown in Minor League Baseball this past year, and the effects that had on the players, staff, and surrounding communities. In large part, that was due to many of the state-to-state jurisdictional issues that each individual league faced, specifically in how many fans could be permitted in each venue versus whether it was worth it for the franchises to open their doors at whatever that given number was.
That is, of course, not unique to just baseball. The ECHL will face those same issues in regards to capacity issues, which played an obvious role in which teams could start on which of the two given dates.
“It’s definitely a concern, and something that is paramount to the decision,” Crelin said. “It’s no secret, and I’ve said this before, but we wouldn’t play without fans. That isn’t part of our business model, and we pride ourselves on providing live entertainment and having people come out and be a part of that experience. It’ll be different this year, but having people in the respective buildings is key. For the teams that are opening up, they’ve all got some allowance of capacity in their venues. This was never going to be a 100-percent, shoulder-to-shoulder type of opening. Some of our teams do have that, but I think you’ll see as responsible, distanced, diminished crowds come back that we’re hoping it turns into the packed house, full atmosphere when it’s reasonable and responsible to do so. But, this is going to be a slow comeback to that.”
Mike Ashmore has 17 years of experience covering professional and college sports. You can follow him on all social media channels at @mashmore98.